Evoking Legacies of Black Achievements through Preservation
Capital One is partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to highlight centuries of Black accomplishments
January 26, 2021
The first two decades of the 20th century saw Tulsa, Oklahoma transform itself from a dusty frontier to an emerging hub for Black entrepreneurship.
Economic opportunity in Tulsa skyrocketed as oil gushers continued to be discovered and Greenwood Avenue — a flourishing center of Black-owned businesses — began to boom with it. The celebrated African American author and educator Booker T. Washington even dubbed this area, “Negro Wall Street,” which is now referred to as “Black Wall Street”.
Between 1910 and 1920, Tulsa’s population nearly quadrupled to more than 72,000 and the Black population rose from less than 2,000 to almost 9,000 as Greenwood was perceived as a place for Black entrepreneurship to flourish without the legalized segregation enforced in the Deep South.
Alongside the bustling theatres, hotels and small businesses that lined more than 35 blocks on Greenwood Avenue sat the Historic Vernon Chapel African Methodist (AME) Church — once a small frame house that was repurposed and rebuilt on additional land in 1914 with a sizable brick basement paid for and constructed by the church’s Black Trustees.
Seven years later, that brick basement would lay in ruin.
During the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921, 26 Black people were killed as Greenwood was destroyed by a rampaging mob of more than 10,000 racist white residents.
A Century of Resilience
Although its basement was razed, the Historic Vernon Chapel AME Church was able to keep its doors open and allow community events to carry on in other parts of the church following the massacre.
The Booker T. Washington class of 1921 walked during their graduation at the church just months after the attack on Greenwood. The church property was also used for various community events in an effort to give local residents a sense of normalcy after the tragic event.
By November 1922, seating capacity of the church was increased; pulpit furniture was installed; plans and blueprints for its present structure were made.
- An estimated 200 people were added to the church roll, increasing its membership to approximately 400.
- The main church building was finally completed in 1928.
Now nearly 100 years since the attack on Black Wall Street, the Historic Vernon AME Church is one of the few remaining Black-owned establishments that operated during the Tulsa Massacre still standing today.
In 2020, the National Trust for Historic Preservation continued its work to help restore historic sites across the U.S., including the Historic Vernon Chapel AME Church, through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Those restoration efforts seek to draw attention to the remarkable stories that evoke centuries of Black activism and achievement.
“Americans should understand that Tulsa and the racial violence that happened there is not the only story,” says Brent Leggs, Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “Greenwood was a prominent and thriving Black cultural landscape and economy — it wasn’t called Black Wall Street for no reason. The level of devastation and erasure of that public memory is a tragedy but there is still a lot of history to be uplifted and celebrated as it relates to Greenwood and that’s why it’s so important that the church stands to tell that story.”
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund invested over $1 million across 27 preservation projects last year with its highest award given to the Historic Vernon Chapel AME Church.
The church received $150,000 through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and an additional $750,000 from local foundations.
- That funding will help stabilize and restore the church’s stained-glass windows, which feature the inscribed names of those who survived the Greenwood Massacre and rebuilt the church.
According to Leggs, those restoration efforts draw on the idea of afrofuturism, which he describes as a cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of Black culture, technology and preservation within the African American experience — ideally to create a clear path for equity and revitalization.
“We can empower African Americans through place-based development projects where Black businesses thrive and historic spaces are revered,” Leggs said. “If we can amplify and raise the visibility of the Black cultural heritage and narrative, that to me is a futuristic view of preservation.”
Carrying on the Legacy of Black Achievement and Activism
Capital One is proud to support the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund with a $100,000 grant to assist the National Trust for Historic Preservation in championing the history and accomplishments of Black Americans and telling our nation’s full history.
In addition to financial contributions, we’re honoring the history, resilience and progress of Black Americans through an artistic experience at select Capital One locations, including New York City’s Union Square branch, New Orleans’ French Quarter branch, Chicago’s State Street and Hyde Park Cafés and Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown Café.
Cafés will pay homage to the history, resilience and progress of Black Americans through a unique visual and auditory experience with afrofuturism as the stylized theme.
“This exhibit was created both to celebrate the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans in the community as well as to remember the attack on Black Wall Street 100 years later,” says Nicole Albertie, a senior art director at Capital One who helped design the café exhibits. “We hope that it will inspire visitors to learn more about Black Wall Street and further the dialogue.”
Capital One’s support of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund comes as part of its larger Capital One Impact Initiative, an initial $200 million, multi-year commitment to advancing socioeconomic mobility through advocating for an inclusive society, building thriving communities and creating financial tools that enrich lives.
“Individuals in society express their cultural identity when it’s connected to place,” Leggs said. “Having landmarks that are the physical evidence of the Black experience stand to ensure that diverse community members can see themselves and their history represented on the American landscape is power.”